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actor-network theory

  The study of heterogeneous engineering: \'heterogeneous\' because it is concerned with a vision of the world as a multiplicity of different connections (translations, associations, mediations); and \'engineering\' because it sees these connections as fabricated out of a diverse range of materials. Actor-network theory is the uneasy progeny of the work of the French philosopher of science, Michel Serres, and the French engineer, Bruno Latour (Serres and Latour, 1995), as well as a host of other writers who initially grouped under the banner of the sociology of science but have now moved into many other areas (e.g. Callon, 1986; Law, 1994: cf. science, geography and).

Actor-network theory has become a major force in the social sciences just as many of its originators have began to disown not so much the project as the idea that there was ever a project at all. Yet it is no surprise that commentators have produced such an interpretation for, like another ascetic approach, timegeography, actor-network theory is an attempt to write the world anew, by starting from first principles. But, also like timegeography, actor-network theory is quietly ambitious: its aim is nothing less than an attempt to rewrite the \'constitution\' of western knowledge (see epistemology).

The new constitution proposed by actor-network theory is based on four main principles.

The first is that all the usual boundaries from which and with which western knowledge is constituted — between humans and things, nature and culture, tradition and modernity, inside and outside — must be put aside. These divides have made it impossible to see the world for what it really is: a collection of heterogeneous activities which are constantly in formation.

The second is that the world is a series of acts of \'heterogenous engineering\', by which is meant that the world is made up of diverse networks of association which are constituted by that association — by the links rather than the nodes of the network and, more than this, by the traffic through the links. The network is, in other words, constituted in \'the passing\'. It is these diverse \'actor-networks\' which are the source of \'agency\' in the world. But this is an agency of partial connection which means that Latour prefers to use the word \'actant\' rather than \'actor\' to describe this hesitant but still potent status (cf. human agency). Of course, this might suggest that networks are so hesitant, so flimsy, that they cannot hold. But this is where the third principle bites.

Because the existence of actor-networks depends so heavily on circulation, their continuation relies on a whole series of \'immutable mobiles\' — devices, types of people, animals, money, and so on, which can be transported from one location to another without changing form — which allow those networks to become durable: \'technology is society made durable\' as Latour (1991) would have it. These immutable mobiles harden and anneal the networks, making it possible for them to last.

The fourth principle is a result of the previous three: the stress laid on mediaries and intermediaries. Taking a leaf from the work of Michel Serres (1995, 1996), the most important elements of the world are counted as the messengers which do the work of keeping networks connected and folding networks into each other. These most prominent performers of association stitch the world together .

Geographers have become very interested in actor-network theory (for reviews see Murdoch, 1997a, 1997b) because it offers them three important points of connection. First, it can be used as a means of producing a better understanding of the twists and turns of both technology and nature (Bingham, 1996; Whatmore, 1999). Second, it problematizes the act of representation; representation becomes a kaleidoscope of different representational modes which can only be briefly stabilized and constantly interfere with each other (see non-representational theory). Third, it provides a means of understanding space as an order of partial connection and in doing so suggests new means of understanding space and place (Thrift, 1996; Hetherington and Law, 1999) as folds in constantly evolving topologies since \'time and space are the consequences of the way in which bodies relate to one another\' (Latour, 1997, p. 174). In this depiction, it shares many similarities with the work of Deleuze and Guattari (see, for example, Deleuze, 1993). Indeed, Latour has often suggested that actor-network theory should be known as \'actant-rhizome\' theory. (NJT)

References Bingham, N. 1996: Object-ions: From technological determinisms towards geographies of relations. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 14: 635-5 8. Bingham, N. and Thrift, N.J. 1999: Some new instructions for travellers: the geography of Bruno Latour and Michael Series. In M. Crang and N.J. Thrift, eds, Thinking space. London: Routledge. Callon, M. 1986: Some elements of a sociology of translation: domestication of the scallops and the fishermen of St Brieuc Bay. In J. Law, ed., Power, action and belief. A new sociology of knowledge? London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 234-65. Deleuze, G. 1993: The Fold. Leibniz and the baroque. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Hetherington, K. and Law, J., eds, 1999: Special issue on actor-network theory and spatiality. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 17. Latour, B. 1991: Technology is society made durable. In J. Law, ed., A sociology of monsters. Essays on power, technology and domination. London: Routledge, 103-3 0. Latour, B. 1993: We have never been modern. Hassocks: Harvester. Latour, B. 1997: Trains of thought: Piaget, formalism, and the fifth dimension. Common Knowledge 6: 170-9 1. Latour, B. and Powers, R. 1998: Two writers face one Turing test. A dialogue in honour of HAL. Common Knowledge 7: 177-91. Law, J. 1994: Organising modernity. Oxford: Blackwell. Murdoch, J. 1997a: Towards a geography of heterogeneous associations. Progress in Human Geography 21: 321-3 7. Murdoch, J. 1997b: Inhuman/n on human/human: actor-network theory and the prospects for a non-dualistic and symmetrical perspective on nature and society. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 15: 731-5 6. Powers, R. 1994: Galatea 2.2. London. Serres, M. 1995: Genesis. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press. Serres, M. 1996: Angels. A modern myth. Paris: Flammarion. Serres, M. and Latour, B. 1995: Conversations on science, culture, time. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press. Thrift, N.J. 1996: Spatial formations. London: Sage. Whatmore, S.J. 1999: Hybrid geographies. Rethinking the human in human geography. In D. Massey, J. Allen and P. Sarre, eds, Human geography today. Cambridge: Polity Press.



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